Australian Politics and the China Card: a Dangerous Game

As the next federal election draws near and with predictions of a close result, the incumbent federal Coalition Government may be talking a lot about China during the upcoming campaign, with long-term repercussions for Australia.

Late last year, Penny Wong delivered a speech, stating that whenever the federal government is in trouble, you see them ‘desperately playing politics on China’. A volatile Question Time where Defence Minister Peter Dutton made unprecedented and unsubstantiated claims that the Chinese Communist Party had decided to back Labor in the upcoming election appeared to substantiate her warning.

In response to widespread outrage, including from former Coalition Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Minister Dutton doubled down, alleging a foreign interference plot by China involving New South Wales Labor. This referred to a revelation by Mike Burgess, Director-General of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), about such a plot in his Annual Threat Assessment, released the previous day. But Burgess did not specify the country attempting foreign interference, the party it targeted, or the jurisdiction.

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese pushed back against what he described as ‘nonsense’, stating that ASIO had not raised any concerns to him about Labor’s candidates. New South Wales Labor also stated it was the first time that it had heard these allegations and raised questions about the politically convenient timing of Dutton’s claims, an allusion to a by-election in the New South Wales marginal state seat of Strathfield where a prominent Chinese Australian candidate, Jason Yat-Sen Li, was running for Labor. In his victory speech, Mr Li spoke about how race had been ‘used as a partisan political weapon for short-term gain but with devastating long-term consequences’ and it was unacceptable that ‘the patriotism of candidates or the Labor Party is questioned with no basis in fact.’ These long-term consequences include dissuading Chinese Australians from fully participating in our democracy as engaged citizens and corroding attempts to build a resilient and inclusive political culture.

Minister Dutton’s actions appear to be part of a pattern of behaviour among Coalition politicians that has been amplified by the press. Since the beginning of the year, there have been several attempts by the Coalition to portray Labor as ‘soft’ on China. Only a week ago, the Prime Minister tried to raise doubts about Labor’s ability to guarantee national security, claiming that Mr Albanese would ‘appease’ China, an assertion he repeated in Question Time. It followed similar unfounded assertions made by Coalition MPs that Mr Albanese would not have the courage to resist the economic pressure that the Chinese government has been applying to Australian trade and investment since early 2020, despite a clear statement from Labor that it would not change the approach taken on foreign interference, human rights or the South China Sea. The economic pressure followed the Australian government’s call for an independent investigation into COVID-19’s origins, which angered Beijing. Coalition MPs also attempted to pressure Labor to join a boycott of WeChat when it was revealed on 23 January 2022 that the Prime Minister had lost control of his account – although Home Affairs officials have since ruled out the Coalition’s claims that the account had been hacked or subjected to foreign interference.

In weaponising the issue, the Coalition MPs have been ingenuously ignoring the fact that foreign interference is a genuine risk from which neither major political party in Australia is immune. Ironically, the Director-General of ASIO in the Annual Threat Assessment made this very point, stating that ‘attempts at political interference are not confined to one side of politics.’

While Minister Dutton repeatedly pointed the finger at NSW Labor, he himself had previously been caught out having a one-on-one lunch meeting with billionaire Huang Xiangmo, who had paid tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege, and who wanted the help of Dutton, then Immigration Minister, in securing his citizenship. Huang was later stripped of his permanent residency and barred from entering Australia on national security grounds.

Among allegations of foreign interference involving the Liberal Party, the apparent links between the Communist Party of China’s United Front Work Department and organisations with which Liberal MP Gladys Liu was closely associated have received the most attention. The first case ever brought under Australia’s foreign interference laws, which were adopted in 2018, is currently before the courts; the defendant, businessman Sunny Duong, was an active Liberal Party member and a former candidate for Victorian state parliament. Earlier, there had been rumours of a foreign interference plot to install the now-deceased Nick Zhao as a Liberal candidate, confirmed by Liberal MP Andrew Hastie in late 2019. There have also been media reports about ASIO’s concerns about a high-profile Liberal Party donor linked to Victorian Liberal Ministers.

Tough talk on China may be red meat for the conservative base. Such tactics, however, may backfire electorally. While a January Newspoll had dealing with the threat of China in the Asia-Pacific as the only issue where the Prime Minister had a notable lead over the Opposition Leader (31 percent – 26 percent), only 10 percent of voters said it was the most important issue for them, the least important out of the five issues polled.

Instead, overreach on this issue may result in Chinese Australian voters deserting the Liberal Party. The recent Canadian federal election, where the Conservative Party campaigned heavily on China, resulted in a big swing against the Conservatives in seats with a high proportion of Chinese Canadians, resulting in the loss of seats.

There are already reports of Chinese Australians shifting away from the Liberals. Chinese Australians voters had been reliably Liberal leaning for the past few elections, with a 2020 Lowy Institute poll finding that those of Chinese heritage were far less likely to identify with Labor than the average Australian. Nearly a fifth of the population of the marginal federal electorates of Chisholm and Reid have Chinese ancestry. A turn to Labor by them could deprive the Coalition of a majority in the House of Representatives. There are also other federal Liberal electorates such as Banks, Bennelong, North Sydney and Kooyong where a swing to Labor or independents among the more than one in ten residents who have Chinese ancestry could put the seats into play.

There is a much larger, more important, and longer-term danger from the tactics. If the government is understood to be weaponising national security intelligence about foreign interference for domestic political gain, like the boy who cried wolf, it will have a hard time getting people to trust in such claims in the future, when national security may actually be at stake. Voters may suspect any given allegation has been driven by political motives. The opaqueness of the allegations, based on leaks from anonymous sources, including those to which the government may imply it has special access, already make it difficult for journalists or opposition politicians, much less citizens, to verify details. Dueling assertions as to who is behind the recent foreign inference plot, with some anonymous sources telling the ABC that it is Russia, and others pointing the finger at China, have created more questions about the political intent behind the leaks.

This pattern of behaviour only shrinks the space for the kind of constructive, bipartisan co-operation needed to protect our sovereignty from greyzone activities by malicious foreign actors and misleads our international partners about the existing domestic consensus. That is not only highly detrimental to Australia’s national interest, but it is an unfortunate departure from a long tradition of bipartisanship on matters of national security.